Federal Records Management

Using the General Records Schedules

Understanding General Records Schedules

In evaluating records and preparing disposition instructions, agencies should make proper use of the General Records Schedules (GRS). The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) issues the GRS to provide disposition authority for records common to many Federal agencies. For the most part, the GRS covers records documenting administrative, or housekeeping, functions rather than program functions. Many of these administrative functions are regulated by oversight agencies, such as the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the General Accounting Office (GAO), and the General Services Administration (GSA). Excluded from GRS coverage are those records maintained by such oversight agencies that relate to their Government-wide management of administrative functions.

GRS disposition authorities are legally mandatory (44 U.S.C. 3303a(d)). Agencies must apply the GRS to the greatest extent possible. In practical terms, this means applying the GRS to the types of records specified unless one of two situations exist:

  1. The agency already has an approved disposition authority once a GRS disposition authority is transmitted. If the agency wishes to continue using that authority it must provide notification to NARA.  See the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about GRS Notifications for more information.
  2. NARA has approved a Request for Records Disposition Authority (also known as a records schedule, or schedule) granting an exception to the GRS-prescribed disposition authority. When submitting the schedule, the agency must provide written justification for the exception. In deciding whether to request an exception to a GRS authority, the agency follows the same internal clearance procedure used for proposing retention periods for records not covered by the GRS.  See the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about General Records Schedule Deviations for more information.

If neither situation exists, then it is necessary to apply the new or revised GRS items within 6 months of their issuance by NARA. This action may involve incorporating GRS revisions and additions into the agency records schedule and then distributing the updated portion of that schedule to agency records personnel. Or it may involve distributing the GRS revisions and additions directly to agency records personnel, along with appropriate instructions.

Applying General Records Schedules to Agency Records

Noting GRS Limitations

Before using the GRS, it is important to read the introduction to each GRS and note any limitations. Such limitations fall into three main categories:

  • Record Limitations. Agencies must not attempt to use the GRS for program records (except for email covered by GRS 6.1). Nor does the GRS necessarily cover all series of administrative records found in agencies. Finally, NARA may grant exceptions to GRS disposition standards when an agency submits a schedule along with sufficient written justification.
  • Agency Limitations. Some agencies or parts of agencies are excluded from using a particular GRS to schedule their records.
  • Date Limitations. Most agency records accumulated before 1921 do not fall under the GRS but must be scheduled by using an agency-specific schedule.

Tailoring GRS Items to Fit Agency Records

Records officers must sometimes modify generally-worded GRS items to fit the records of their own agency when adding these items to the agency's records schedule. By drawing on their knowledge of agency functions, records, terminology, and procedures, they can ensure that their tailored descriptions accurately reflect the actual records in their agency's custody. For example, they may insert the name of an organizational unit, include titles of agency forms as illustrations, and reword the series or system title or the description to conform to the agency's normal usage or editorial style. Although the substance of the GRS disposition must remain the same if a definite retention period is specified, appropriate cutoff and retirement instructions may be added.

However, when the GRS disposition authorizes destruction, or deletion, "when no longer needed" for the records, the agency should apply a more specific disposition instruction, such as "Destroy when 1 year old" or Delete after 2 update cycles," which will meet its particular program needs. NARA approval is not needed to establish specific retention periods for records authorized by the GRS for destruction, or deletion, when no longer needed.

Most records described in the GRS are scheduled as temporary (that is, disposable or nonpermanent). Usually the GRS authorizes destruction of such records, although occasionally, it may direct the transfer of records.

A few GRS items have as their disposition cross-references to related records covered elsewhere in the GRS or in agency schedules. In these instances the GRS simply instructs the user to apply the disposition instructions authorized by NARA for the related records.

Giving Special Care to OPM and GAO Records

Several record series are unique because the agency that creates and maintains them does not have full legal control over them. They therefore require special care in their disposition. These series, most of which are covered by the GRS, are:

  • Records of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The main examples of OPM records maintained in agencies are:
    • Official Personnel Folders (OPF's). The OPF's document Federal employment for each individual, including service, rights, and benefits. They travel with each employee from agency to agency, beginning with first employment and being closed on separation. If an employee is rehired, the OPF is reopened, and the service continues to be documented until separation. Authorized disposition instructions for OPF's appear in GRS 2.2.
    • Employee Medical Folders (EMFs). The EMF’s document occupational health histories for each individual.  Similar to the OPF, the EMF travels with each employee from agency to agency, beginning with first employment and being closed on separation.  Authorized disposition instructions for EMF’s appear in GRS 2.7.
  • Records of the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Since 1950, agency programs have dealt with records of accountable officers that are held in agency space for GAO audit. These records reflect an audit responsibility GAO has had since its creation in 1921. It is necessary to distinguish the GAO site audit records from agency "memorandum" copies of accountable officers' records. For example,
    • GRS 1.1, item 010 covers the original of accountable officers' accounts maintained in the agency for site audit by GAO.

Issuing General Records Schedules Within an Agency

Agencies should include applicable GRS disposition authorities in their comprehensive records schedule, which they should issue and update as a part of a directives system. They generally do so in one of two ways:

  • Interspersing the GRS disposition standards item by item among those derived from NARA-approved agency-specific schedules. Taking this approach requires keeping track of the citations of the GRS items dispersed throughout the schedule. Otherwise the agency will be unable to update its comprehensive schedule promptly when NARA issues changes to particular GRS disposition authorities.
  • Attaching the entire GRS to the remainder of the comprehensive schedule and updating it promptly when NARA makes additions and changes to the GRS authorities. This approach may require placing cross-references in the non-GRS portion of the schedule to aid the user.

Whichever approach is used, each agency must review and, if necessary, update its records schedule at least annually and within 6 months of NARA's issuance of new or revised GRS items for which the agency has no exception.

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